Coddling Winkles

As things turn out our tide on Strollamus turns out to be the seashore highlight.  With deteriorating weather, time on the beach becomes more of a challenge and I adopt my supermarket approach to fieldwork.  You just have to rush in, fill your trolley (buckets) with what you need and dash out again.  The luxury of wandering over the shore looking for shells lying around, or lifting rocks to peer underneath is nothing like so enjoyable when you have rain dripping off the hood of your jacket onto your nose, and you have no windscreen-wipers on your spectacles.

Nevertheless on the last shore day I learn a new trick.  Julia is well versed in the finding and identifying of nudibranchs, otherwise known as sea-slugs.  I’ve said it before but to appreciate the beauty of this Order of gastropod molluscs you should check out Jim Anderson’s website Scottish Nudibranchs.  Some of them are so minute you barely see them with a naked eye, but you can know where to look and in the matter of Doto, Julia does.

Most seaslugs have very specific food requirements.  They may feed exclusively on a kind of bryozoan or hydroid.  If you find the food you can look, and often find, the feeder.  I am shown a hydroid that grows on the common brown seaweeds (Fucus species) on the shore.  They are covered with dainty, spiky fronds that look like fine threads.  These are the hydroid Dynamena. One species of Doto feeds on this organism and indeed with a handlens you can see the hydroid is covered with the tiny slugs and their egg masses.  By kind permission Peter allows me to post a snapshot of this small assemblage below.

And talking of food, our final evening when we expect to empty the fridge of ‘left-overs’ turns into an innovative feast.  We use up eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheese, pasta, curry, tomatoes, celery, strawberries, cream ………. and centre stage on the table goes to a colander of winkles we gathered from the shore at Braes that afternoon.  Bas has already experimented earlier on the trip with a new approach to cooking clams.  This does not involve boiling them to death.  He applies his theory to cooking winkles (as one might coddle an egg) and the result is tender, tasty snippets of protein.  Here is what he does:

A >  Scrub and rinse the shells.
B >  Place them in a layer only one or at most two shells deep in a pan or bowl.
C >  Pour on boiling water about three times as deep as the shells (i.e. lots of water in relation to the amount of shell, so that they heat up quickly).
D >  Leave for 10-15 minutes.
E >  Pour the hot water off, remove meat from the shells with a pin, and eat.

It’s probably even more important than usual to make sure that the place you collect the shells isn’t polluted, as the shellfish are cooked relatively lightly; and for the same reason it’s probably best not to use it on very large shells as they may not cook right through.

The same method works well also with clams; and even better if you start by lightly frying an onion in butter in a saucepan, pouring on a little white wine, then turning the plate off, adding the shells as in B above, and then pouring on boiling water etc. as in C-E.

I am grateful to Bas for allowing me to reproduce his recipe here and also to my fellow workers on the trip who have allowed me to use their photographs in the Skye galleries.

Three of us set out on Tuesday morning for our journey south.  The weather is still moist and overcast but we are blessed with a wonderful rainbow on our way to Fort William.  We are all quiet and, I think, wrapped up in many thoughts.  I am thinking about the sample pots I am taking home.

During our sorting sessions one of my compatriots looked through his microscope and uttered an expletive.  I peered down his eyepieces and saw that he had a point.  His petri dish was awash with small snails.  There were hardly any mineral grains or other beings.  He looked at his pot of residue and saw that it was uniformly the same.  We did a finger in the air calculation and worked out that his pot might contain 64,000 snails.  Fortunately they were nearly all specimens of less than a handful of species.  But the sample needs to be sorted because this is why we take samples of the weed faunas.  These are tiny molluscs, we are talking a pot the size of a plastic 35mm-film canister.  That’s just one sample and we have looked at 6 sites.

As we drive along I look out at the mountains on this misty morn and sigh.  So many snails……….. so little time.

At a Very Low Ebb – But Not Us

On the day of the very lowest springs, when you really have a sense of tiptoeing over the seabed, we go to a wonderful shore just west of Broadford Bay.  It is a particularly unbeautiful beach, more or less level, featureless and very brown.  The cobbles, pebbles, gravels, the brown fucoid seaweeds all give an impression of a dull, shadowy place.  But what marvels it reveals once you start to look.

The site is at a point where, at extreme low water, the channel between the shore and the opposing shore on the island of Scalpay is at its narrowest.  When the tide is running through narrows you get a rapids effect and lots of marine life seems to like that.  Sponges can be prolific and scallops obviously benefit from a constant stream of particulate matter to filter feed on.

Perhaps that is why we find lots of juvenile scallops: the king, Pecten maximus, the queen Aequipecten opercularis and the dainty Snow scallop, Chlamys nivea. Individuals of the former two species are bright splashes of colour at the water’s edge or seen through the shallows amongst the gravels and weeds.  The ‘niveas’ tend to attach to the undersides of large cobbles and rocks.

I saw lots of baby ‘kings’:  it’s a veritable nursery.  I know from what I learnt on my first trip to Skye 27 years ago that local scallop divers pick up juveniles and move them around to ‘nursery’ grounds of their choosing.  This simple management of their local resource makes it easier for them to exploit the scallop fishery in a sustainable way.

You can also find the horse mussel Modiolus modiolus embedded in the gravels. This is a sensitive species which has shown a decline in recent years.  Dredging for scallops has caused damaged to the seabed where they have been growing in large numbers.  Horse mussels are long-lived molluscs, it is likely they live to 50 years.  When found on the seashore they should be left well alone.

In addition to an array of molluscs, including interesting clam species which we sieve from the gravels, there are lots of sea urchins.  There are many of the small Paracentrotus lividus urchins under rocks, but there are also large individuals of Echinus esculentus amongst the kelp plants in the shallows.  These are edible, I have never tried them, the taste of urchin is said to taste like nothing else – an article in the Independent describes them as having a creamy taste with a hint of iodine.  Peter finds a perfect test of the purple heart urchin, Spatangus purpureus.  It is a prize.

We take our usual weeds to wash, and scrub boulders on the shore.  Just before we leave Steve picks up a large paired Pecten shell.  It has several interesting specimens on and inside it.  We can see the turrid, the nudibranch, the chiton, the limpet and the young scallop attached to the exterior and the interior has some small clods of sediment.  We decide to take it back and see how many species we retrieve from it as a sample of ‘substrate’.  When every last bit of sieved mud has been picked through we have a tally of more than 30 mollusc species from this single object.

On the way back to Kyleakin I am driving Peter’s car and I suddenly realise I am very hungry.  It has been wet and windy all afternoon.  We stop in Broadford and the four of us buy pies – mine is a warmed chicken and mushroom one and it is yummy.

But there is more tastiness in store when I sit down with the others to enjoy a convivial Saturday evening in over a dish of pasta prepared by Sonia and Terry.   Creature comforts abound, such a bonus when you are on a field trip!

Rain at Camas Croise

There is a bliss to be had when relaxing in a long, deep bath with a glass of wine and a view of the Cuillins.  This is my daily treat as the field trip progresses.

There has to be a flip side to the two or three hours you might spend plodding over muddy sand, or negotiating a way over weedy rocks in persistent rain and wind to get to a ‘sheltered’ place at the water’s edge (I mean a spot with a calm aspect where marine life can exist with minimal disturbance).   I have found the best way to achieve the latter without slipping is to use my stacked yellow buckets as a zimmer frame.  It is very undignified but as safe a method I can find for doing something so foolish.  All this in wet weather gear and stout wellies.

At Camas Croise we are entertained by Seb the 6-month old Labrador pup who has a fine time finding shells and tossing them about in the hope that someone will play with him.

Despite the weather we complete our tasks and as we haul our wet selves back to the car I am already looking forward to the soiree we have planned for the whole group at our house in Kyleakin.

We are a bumper 17 on this field trip ranging from experts to novices, dab hands and new members.  We are going to start at 6 o’clock in order to cater for people with long journeys back to guesthouses.  Because of Skye’s shape, journeys across the island can easily take 2 hours.  We are keeping the meal ever so simple so its bangers and mash with green beans and I am in charge of making the largest pan of fried onions I’ve ever cooked but Rosemary and Sonia are chefs for the evening.  Afterwards we serve apple pie, ice cream and cream.    The Broadford Co-op has provided all our requirements and we work out afterwards that it cost £2.70 a head.

After the last guests have gone I stay at my microscope for a short while but I am already behind with my samples.  And tomorrow’s shore is the biggie!

Secret Seven go to Skye

So on Thursday we sally forth like so many children on an ‘igventure’ (Nick’s childhood word).  We are very gung ho, there is much banter and jokery.  We are, as a group of shellers, plainly excited about what we might find at the beach.  When Bas and I looked at the shore the previous evening the tide was in and there weren’t many shells lying around.  The only clue we have is that offshore islets and the general aspect of the shore mean it is very sheltered and marine invertebrates like that.

Rosemary has made a picnic lunch for us all which is VERY KIND in my book.  We’ve chosen a site near Plockton and we have to negotiate two gates which straddle an ancient single-track railway, and then proceed along a progressively rural track, through another gate and we can then park on the low bank above the shore.  The tide is well on the ebb when we arrive.  There is a small cascading burn which is flowing under a bridge and down onto the foreshore. This means it would be unsafe to eat any gleanings from this particular beach.

There are the usual cockles, mussels and winkles to be found, also a few oysters.  As the tide goes down we wade in the still, clear shallow water, finding boulders to roll and underneath, treasures.  I turn up a large specimen of the Snow Scallop attached to the boulder by its byssus. It is sitting alongside living cowries and a sea slug which when dark orange looks just like a dried apricot. We take numerous photos and roll the rock back into position.

The beautiful white scallop, well-named then, is restricted to the western coasts and islands of Scotland.  It lives nowhere else as far as is known.  I wrote a paper about this in 1986, my first venture into science.  Something of an undertaking at the time given my background in modern languages and the paucity of O-Level qualification I had in science.

It became quite a labour, the numerics including the dreaded standard deviations, being done by hand.  With no Internet to search out information in those distant days, it involved visits to Museums and libraries to search literature and measure shells.  Young son Dan, who was 10 at the time, clearly felt the pinch because he commented to the effect that he hoped I would never undertake something quite so self-absorbing and time-consuming again.

Before the tide turns we have taken weeds to wash and have scrubbed boulders to sample all the microscopic species we’ll never spot with the naked eye.  Sorting these sieved residues later reveals a fascinating array of tiny snails including a trio of species which look like minute whelks (less than 2mm high) with purple-ringed apertures.  These are a find.

We take all our samples away in bags and pots and then sit on the grassy bank watching the tide flow towards us and eat sandwiches, much fruit and Kit Kats.  We return to the house.  It is my turn to cook our supper so I produce ‘Christine Street’s’ curry.  We plan the next shore.